Sunday, November 3, 2013

The right kind of board conflict

Conflict in the nonprofit boardroom is never okay. Or is it?

Board members volunteer their time, expertise and wisdom. The best come willingly, in the spirit of contributing something important and making a difference. In return, we - board leaders and senior staff - attempt to create a stimulating and collegial experience for everyone involved. The last thing anyone involved in this important work wants is a toxic, contentious environment.

Often, that translates into avoidance of conflict at all costs. We tap dance around the tough questions, resist recruiting anyone too different from us, and isolate the 'troublemakers.'

But is that necessarily wise?

Recently, I read a Harvard Business Review blog post that reminded me that conflict itself is neither good nor bad. The type of conflict - and how we handle it - is the critical difference. In that post, "Good Conflict Makes a Good Board," author Solange Charas describes two types of conflict: 

Cognitive conflict "is task-oriented, with a focus on how to get things done to achieve optimal results."

On the flip side is affective conflict, which "is emotionally oriented and focused on personal differences or shortcomings between people."

Facilitated well, the former invites divergent thinking and critical analysis. Cognitive conflict requires different perspectives and experiences, broadening our thinking and anticipating more contingencies that could affect how the resulting decisions unfold once they are made. We want this kind of conflict in our boardrooms. In fact, we should be building in processes and expectations that make these kinds of robust exchanges part of the deliberation process. We also should be recruiting members who bring different experiences and frames of thinking that fuel cognitive conflict.

What's not productive in the boardroom is the latter type, affective conflict. Allowing interpersonal 'stuff' to derail discussions, bringing conflict unrelated to this board or the nonprofit organization it's governing into the deliberations - affective conflict, at best, contributes nothing to the process and, at worst (and most frequently), erects obstacles to the work board members are called to do.

Affective conflict can be tricky to handle for many reasons. I believe it's even more problematic in a nonprofit boardroom or other settings involving volunteers. Why? Because it involves people who are there voluntarily - giving that precious time and talent - and doing so in the hope that it will somehow make a difference to others. We want to feel good about that work. We want it to be fulfilling, to have impact, and to maybe even be fun. We do not want to spend those precious hours fighting or feeling like they have been wasted by meaningless battles that have nothing to do with the job at hand.

So how do we minimize - or even eliminate - affective conflict in our boardrooms? I have no magic solution, but I do have at least a couple of suggestions.

One, we need to create and nurture a culture of collegiality and mission focus. "Culture" itself can be hard to see, but we can take steps toward building that environment. For example, consider setting ground rules about how board members will interact and how the group will address problems that arise. Use this process, not as a way to end up with a bunch of rules to then set aside when done, but to foster frank conversations about expectations and mission-focused goals for the board's work.
Regularly revisit those rules, as reminders about how we commit to engaging as organizational leaders. Focus not only on the "thou shalt nots," but on the kinds of interactions that encourage the productive, mission-focused deliberations that facilitate governance.

Two, we need leadership (board leadership, not ED. It's not his/her job...) willing to rein in unproductive interactions of all kinds, including affective conflict. It's not easy. It's not fun. But it's part of the job of leading our governing bodies. In the (hopefully) rare event that this type of interpersonal conflict interferes with board business and collegiality. If you're a board leader, are you prepared - and willing - to intervene in a timely manner?

What kinds of conflict do you allow in your boardroom interactions? What do you do to foster the creative stimulation that comes with cognitive conflict? How do you reduce the risk of affective conflict seeping into the boardroom?

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